Dubai rugby league

Forget union, this is real rugby. Time Out meets the UAE Falcons and finds out about the Emirates rugby league scene


As if playing arguably the toughest team game in the world wasn’t enough, the people behind Emirates Rugby League (ERL) are even sticking it out at the height of summer. Formed only a year and a half ago, the initiative is headed up by the UAE Falcons, who represent the UAE in the league variant of rugby – a style noted for its harder tackling, its faster gameplay and its firmer focus on an attack-and-defence structure. The UAE Falcons have even captured the attention of former Leeds Rhino prop Wayne McDonald.

‘I retired from playing professionally in the UK in 2006 and came out to Dubai not long after,’ said McDonald, who was initially looking at moving into a coaching role but instead got onboard and has been representing the UAE for more than a season now. In order to get the UAE to qualify for the Rugby League World Cup, the ERL needs to gather enough players to form a four-team league so it’s on the hunt for new players. ‘Local interest has been difficult,’ says McDonald. ‘Pretty minimal, which is a shame. Rugby Union takes precedence here, with a strong basis of interest for the Hurricanes and the Exiles.’

The Falcons have attracted the interest of local union player Abdul Rahman. The only Emirati on the team at the moment told us it’s difficult to convince Emiratis that rugby is for them. ‘They say rugby means fights, so they don’t want to play. They say this is an English game, not an Arabic game.’ When we point out that an English game like football also manages to capture Emirati imagination Rahman explains the root of the issue. ‘They say that in rugby you need to tackle, you need to hit people. But they don’t know rugby at all. The first time I played I felt, this is my game – for the reasons that put a lot of people off.’

Rahman explains that rugby union is more popular because of its similarities to football – with possession changing hands more frequently than league. A union player himself outside of summer, Rahman says that league has offered a much greater challenge in terms of fitness, particularly during the hotter months.

Time Out spoke to the team just days before the Falcons faced a squad ripped straight from the heartland of rugby league. Saddleworth, a club in the north of England, really represents the origins of the sport, where northern clubs left England’s Rugby Football Union to set up the new code more than a century ago.

The meeting with these true league stalwarts follows a complicated run of games against Liban Espoir, a popular Lebanese side, in the past month. ‘We had a couple of games close together; one on a Friday, one
on a Monday,’ says McDonald. ‘The Friday game didn’t end how I wanted it to end but we beat them,’ says McDonald.

With the Falcons leading 16-6 in the third quarter (the match was split up into 20-minute quarters to lessen the effects of the heat) a mass brawl ensued. McDonald insists that ‘passions often run high in the sport’, but the fight eventually forced the referee to call the game to a close.

Despite unseemly end the Falcons had the better of both games and McDonald, despite embarrassment, acknowledges that the ill-fated match represented a second victory against a well established Lebanese side. ‘At the end of the day we beat Lebanon twice,’ he insists, ‘and they’ve got a league already going. To put a team together from scratch over here and beat a side like that is a good sign for the game, really.’
ERL trains on Mondays and Wednesdays, 8pm at Za’abeel Park.For info visit

Match report

The UAE Falcoms lost 20-64 against a younger and fitter Saddleworth Rangers team on a hot night at The Sevens stadium. Rangers opened the scoring after five minutes, recording three more quick tries in to lead by 24 points after the first quarter. They continued in the same vein, going 42 points up by half-time. It wasn’t until the 60-minute mark that Elie Nehme touched down on debut to register the Falcon’s first points.

Duncan Murray’s conversion made it 6-48 after the third quarter. The Falcons hit their stride in the final spell, matching Rangers’ three tries with touchdowns by Dave Bolmer, player-coach Dougall Harvison and Wayne McDonald, with the latter converted by Billy Asmar to end the game 20-64.

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